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From my earliest days at the paper, I had told my editors that although I was determined to work overseas, I did not want to be sent to Africa. To be clear, this was in no way due to a lack of interest in the continent on my part, but rather because the news business itself accorded such little attention to Africa, and when it bothered to it tended to cover it in only the most sporadic and stilted ways, as if Africans were as impossible to grasp as extraterrestrials. But the paper pressed hard for me to accept the posting, and I complied, covering the continent again for four-and-a-half years — during which the biggest stories were the ferocious wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and especially Zaire now Congo.

Late in this African stint, an unexpected call came from my editor in New York. Where would I like to go next, he asked? Could you do that? How would you cover Japan? To be clear, the New York Times did not stand out in this regard. Few other publications did any better. Michel revealed to me that his strategy in those early years was to focus on subjects that he knew white peers would find unattractive — which frequently meant doing things that required going deep into black communities, often during moments of violence or trauma.

Michel was already an extraordinary journalist, and this strategy and his talents led him to cover racial tensions in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, where he reported on the riots with distinction.

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The limits of his political approach to race within the paper became apparent, though, when he successfully pushed to cover computers, games and consumer electronics during the technology boom of the s. There was immediate pushback from his white colleagues, who claimed he had no background in tech and was not the right person for the job. A black man occupying this space did not fit preconceptions, any more than me heading to Tokyo did, and perhaps even less. Implicitly, it also meant depriving a white person of a coveted job covering a hot sector, and the ensuing resentment, much like the howls against supposed affirmative action that I had faced upon ascension to the foreign staff, laid bare the limits of liberal generosity in our profession.

As a black reporter, one had little choice but to get used to lots of little insults; many of them came from unexpected places. From my earliest days as the New York Times bureau chief in Tokyo, I struggled with a veteran Japanese office manager in late middle age, who had almost immediately begun to defy me at every turn. I learned from his fellow Japanese office employees, for example, that they should run by him all my requests for research on stories, before doing anything to assist me.

Little by little I learned that he resented that the Times had sent a black man with an African wife to cover Japan, interrupting an endless line of white bureau chiefs, many of whom had Ivy League educations and academic backgrounds in Asian affairs. He took it as a sort of implicit downgrade of his country. N aturally enough, the history of black people in journalism shadows the history of race in America itself, which across the ages has slowly and ever reluctantly ceded space to people of African ancestry. In the public sphere, this happened first in entertainment, meaning song and dance, then in sport, all areas where black people still enjoy heavily disproportionate representation.

The opening eventually reached journalism, which for most of its history in America had been a strictly segregated industry. In the s and s, very much belatedly, it was decided that black people should be allowed to write about race in the mainstream press.


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A sudden urgency attached to this discovery after violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators in the South, and especially after the urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in A great uncle of mine, Simeon Booker, had been in the forefront of this wave, as the first African American reporter hired by the Washington Post, in When I joined the New York Times, there were no black reporters covering presidential campaigns.

But in a year of open and often shrill racism on the campaign trail, there is only one black reporter, newly hired, covering the presidential elections — and similar circumstances can be found at other top newspapers. Looking at the traditional media industry as a whole, there are relatively few organisations where things are dramatically better.

This is not to say that black people have not come to penetrate previously off-limits areas of the American media.

A Blessing and a Burden

In small numbers, with great perseverance, they have. Television news, in particular, seems to have grown more diversified, with the inclusion of black commentators, for example, now de rigueur on many networks. In the newspaper industry overall, however, the numbers of African Americans have been dwindling, from 5. Though the history of race in America makes this an especially important issue in the US media, there are comparable narratives in many other societies — mirroring the way that an entrenched majority only reluctantly cedes any authority to a growing minority in the business.

British journalism, for example, has by any objective measure done even less to integrate than American news organisations, especially at the highest levels of the profession. It must be said that in the past few years, a small number of prestige publications — often magazines such as the New Yorker, New York magazine, and the New York Times magazine — have made visible efforts to hire high-profile black writers. This has taken place amid a broader democratisation of the media, owing to the proliferation of online publications with national ambitions — which has allowed many new non-white voices to emerge.

For decades it has been clear that space is made in the firmament for a tiny number of black journalists at any given time, if mostly to write about race. For the past few years, this role has been thrust most of all upon Ta-Nehisi Coates — especially since the publication, in May , of his blockbuster cover story in the Atlantic, The Case for Reparations. Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued — and the practical damage it has done — to generations of black Americans, it will fail to live up to its own ideals.


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  6. This all flew in the face of a cherished and prevalent idea in the US: that the place of African Americans in the society has been transformed dramatically for the better — first through the arrival of legal equality, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and other anti-discrimination laws dating to the s and s, and then by decades of state investments in social welfare programmes. In the popular imagination, this happy narrative concludes, finally, with the exclamation point of a black president, Barack Obama. A year later, in the summer of , Coates published his second book, Between the World and Me: Notes on the First Years in America, which takes the form of a letter to his teenage son.

    An extraordinary deluge of plaudits began raining down on Coates with the publication of this book. Suddenly, the exceedingly white cream of the American book and humanities world were seemingly falling over themselves to celebrate a black man whose work, without too much of a stretch, could be described as a giant thumb in their eye. This, to be sure, was great work being celebrated, and yet at the same time it was hard to avoid the feeling that we were witnessing the re-enactment of an old, insidious ritual of confinement, even though it was being carried out via fulsome praise.

    Coates was doing, after all, the one thing that black writers have long been permitted — if not always encouraged — to do: write about the experience of race and racism in the world and in their own lives. The media industry has long been selective in opening up spaces for African American people, while silently reserving all the rest for members of the white majority — and the showering of great prizes on black writers such as Coates, however deserved, was in a way a celebration, by the people who maintain this exclusion, of their own enlightenment and generosity.

    There is a tradition of elevating a single tenor for the entire race, or less commonly, a small number of people who were deemed worthy of the attentions of a national audience. This is where the James Baldwin comparisons that have so often been drawn with Coates become interesting. Baldwin, like Coates, occupied this carefully guarded stage.

    To be sure, neither of them were asked their feelings about this, and if they had been, neither could have approved.

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    Coates, for his part, has rejected the very mantle of the public intellectual. This process of assigning discrete bandwidth to a singular black figure for a limited, if indeterminate period of time the whims of the majority will decide is ultimately a mechanism for feeling good about oneself. That figure can always be pointed to, cited at cocktail parties, maybe even invited, as evidence that black opinion is being heard, even better, perhaps, if it is angry, because that demonstrates white forbearance.


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    There was a discussion under way about the need to achieve more diversity in the classroom, and one of my white colleagues earnestly explained that he had tried hard to address this problem. T he importance of diversity in the media — as in other sectors of society — is not about scoring points in some imaginary scale of civic virtue.

    It has nothing to do with the granting of favours — or even concessions — by a white majority. It is akin to restoring vision to a creature with impaired sight, making it whole and allowing it to function at the full limits of its perceptive and analytical capacity. The majority cannot understand this — cannot realise that it is partly blind — because its own provincialism has persisted uninterrupted for so long.

    When I expressed excitement that a non-white person would be filling this job, in a region where coverage has so long been dominated by unchallenged white paradigms of race, the editor was puzzled. Going beyond this requires more than hiring non-white reporters and editors — though that is necessary. Meaningful diversity, of a sort that changes how news organisations see the world, requires boosting the number of non-white figures in positions of editorial decision-making from top to bottom.

    The industry employment statistics are disheartening enough, but in many ways they understate the scale of the problem: the people whose decisions shape the news Americans read and watch are almost all white — as I was reminded, almost by accident, last year. One nearly snowed-in weekend afternoon, I returned to my university office to fetch a book I had forgotten there. In doing so, I stumbled into a milling crowd of editors who had gathered there to vote in various committees for the prestigious National Magazine awards.

    Surprised by what I found, I lingered a few moments to take in the scene: except for a lone woman of Asian descent spotted in the elevator, everyone else I chanced upon was white. As if in a deathbed experience, in that instant, my entire career flashed before my eyes. This little microcosm consisted of the people who hire and fire throughout the American magazine world. They decide what will be commissioned and published, and exactly where this content will appear. Careers rise and fall on the basis of their judgments.

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    Here, they were gathered to decide what was the most important work in American journalism over the last year, and they were quite nearly all white. The long read. DiAngelo, who is white, emphasizes that the stances that make up white fragility are not merely irrational. Or even comical, though some of her anecdotes—participants in a voluntary anti-racism workshop dissolving with umbrage at any talk of racism—simmer with perverse humor.

    White fragility holds racism in place. DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for white liberals like herself and like me , whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. Whiteness, on the other hand, scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. To be perceived as an individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color, she notes, is a privilege largely afforded to white people; although most school shooters, domestic terrorists, and rapists in the United States are white, it is rare to see a white man on the street reduced to a stereotype.

    Likewise, people of color often endure having their views attributed to their racial identities; the luxury of impartiality is denied them.

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    In outlining these discrepancies, DiAngelo draws heavily on the words of black writers and scholars—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Cheryl Harris—although, perhaps surprisingly, she incorporates few present-day interviews with people of color. Like a mutating virus, racism shape-shifts in order to stay alive; when its explicit expression becomes taboo, it hides in coded language. Nor does prejudice disappear when people decide that they will no longer tolerate it. It just looks for ways to avoid detection. Pause on that, white reader.

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    You may have subconsciously developed your strong negative feelings about racism in order to escape having to help dismantle it. As an ethical thinker, DiAngelo belongs to the utilitarian school, which places less importance on attitudes than on the ways in which attitudes cause harm.